Daring young men on their farming machines

Roderick McQueen September 25 1978

Daring young men on their farming machines

Roderick McQueen September 25 1978

Daring young men on their farming machines


Victor Rice was outside Massey-Ferguson Ltd.’s 14th-floor downtown Toronto boardroom earlier this month waiting, as he always does, to report to the board, then leave. This time, however, he would enter when summoned and remain as president, chief operating officer and director.

Tipped off 10 days earlier by Conrad Black, Massey chairman himself for only three weeks, Rice knew the 15 directors were dissecting his capacity to

ride day-to-day herd on a firm embarrassingly in the hole. After an hour, approval was unanimous, but unspoken was the knowledge that time to look for other candidates had run out. Ushered in at 11:15 a.m., he feigned surprise when told the news and took a seat beside director Ralph Barford.

The agenda moved quickly to item seven: Report of the president. For 22 years, that had been 66-year-old Albert Thornbrough’s task but that day it was Rice to whom everyone turned. “As your new president of 15 minutes,” he began, “I can tell you that bugger-all has happened.”

With losses at the farm machinery

giant of $145.5 million in 1978’s first nine months announced at the same meeting, it was the best news the board had heard in 1 xk years of terrible global tales. In fact, for the 37-year-old Rice, it

may be precisely the right time to be stepping in. “We’ve bitten more than half the bullet,” says Black, who just recently assumed control of Argus Corp. which in turn owns 16.4 per cent of Massey shares (Maclean's, June 26). “To finish the job, there’s no better person than Victor Rice.” Some on the board disagree it’s that simple, noting that Thornbrough remains chief executive officer.

Last week, however, it was Rice who led an executive group of eight in a Falcon Fanjet flying to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for three weeks of meetings to

finalize 1979 plans there and in London, England. From office boy in his native Britain at 16, he’d become president of Canada’s fourth largest multinational with 90 factories in 32 countries and $3 billion in sales last year—and a host of problems.

They include: triple-digit inflation and interest-rates slashing South American farm-machinery sales; lengthy strikes in the U.K. and elsewhere; soaring export price tags for German-made construction equipment; too much debt; too many long-in-thetooth executives; concern about toplevel succession; and a boardroom schism over who should run things.

It is, however, a firm that has seen hard times before. There was a year during the Depression, so the story goes, when the sole revenue was an insurance claim paid after two combines fell, or were pushed, from an upbound Great Lakes vessel and sank from sight.

Too, there was-trouble in the mid-1950s after Massey-Harris, as it had been called since 1891, merged with the British-based Harry Ferguson companies to become Massey-Harris-Ferguson until 1958 when Harris was dropped. Unprofitability had brought a management shake-up and Kansas-born Thornbrough as president in 1956.

The cycle of worldwide bleeding has returned and has again produced new men at the top. Black has taken over former chairman W. E. Phillips’ 14thfloor office at Massey, vacant since his death in 1964, complete with sitting room and shower. Rice will join him on the 14th when he returns to Canada

early next month. Six months ago, Chairman Bud McDougald was 70, President Thornbrough was 66. Today, McDougald is dead, Thornbrough has taken another step out and the young bucks have arrived. (Black himself is only 34.)

It’s a firm with a history tightly tied to Canada’s, beginning in 1847 with Daniel Massey, followed by his son, Hart, and some newfangled gizmos— the mechanical mower, the combine and the self-binder which revolutionized farming, ended the need for large farm families, aided settlement and cultivation of a vast country. This century, the Massey family has sent its men to those two highest of Canadian ambitions: Vincent Massey, who was the last family member to run the firm,became governor-general; his brother, Raymond Massey, went to Hollywood and became famous for his Abraham Lincoln in Abe Lincoln in Illinois among other roles.

Thornbrough’s legacy for the past two decades has been growth into the Third World but it was an outreach that also stretched the firm too far. Much of the turnaround is already in place as Rice, financial specialist and witty marketing man, steps in. For example, the beleaguered West German construction equipment manufacturer, Massey-Ferguson-Hanomag, has been up for sale for six months; 9,000 employees around the world have been dismissed in the past year bringing the total down to 58,000; board meetings have been increased; two of the three executive vicepresidents heading the geographic regions and the head of Massey-owned Perkins Engines have left. To come, more personnel changes including fresh outside talent; geographic reorganization and centralization; more extremities of the corporate body up for sale. The only plants safe from sale will be tractor, harvester and diesel engine plants in Canada, the United States, France and the United Kingdom.

If reports filtering out now are to be believed, weekly results suggest the fourth quarter may show a modest profit. Next year, losses will be kept to the first half, but the firm promises that the full year will be profitable.

“That,” said Rice last week, “is a monkey on my back.” He will put his own stamp on the place quickly, although major decisions will be taken by what he calls the holy trinity—himself, Black and Thornbrough. Meanwhile, no one is more interested in how he’ll do than he is himself. Claiming he hasn’t yet been told his salary, he knows it won’t be the $371,000 paid former president Thornbrough annually. At the moment, it matters not a whit, but next year is different. “If I turn it around,” he smiles, “I don’t think I can be paid enough.”

Roderick McQueen